In January, Rick Raemisch was brought shackled and handcuffed to a state penitentiary in Colorado and deposited in a 13-by-17-foot cell with nothing in it except a bed, toilet and sink screwed to the floor. His restraints were removed, the door slammed shut behind him and then he was alone.
Mr. Raemisch had committed no crime. He was, in fact, the recently appointed head of Colorado’s corrections department, and as he later wrote in a New York Times op-ed, he hoped that by putting himself in an inmate’s place he might get “a better sense of what solitary confinement was like, and what it did to the prisoners who were housed there, sometimes for years.” For the next 20 hours, his life was hell.
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that at any given time in the U.S. there are least 20,000 inmates, and possibly more, in solitary confinement — a cruel form of extreme punishment that isolates some prisoners from any human contact for months, years or even decades, and that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned as torture by another name. The American Psychiatric Association calls for banning the practice beyond 30 days because of the damage prolonged sensory deprivation and lack of stimulation cause to inmates’ brains, which is similar to that seen in victims of other forms of traumatic brain injury.
In Maryland, corrections officials deny using solitary confinement to discipline unruly or troublesome prisoners. But the techniques it uses to control inmates amount to virtually the same thing — the polite term for the practice is “segregation.” Moreover, while other states are moving to ban or limit the practice of isolating prisoners for prolonged periods — either alone or with another inmate in the same cell — Maryland has resisted acknowledging it has a problem or collecting the kind of data that would indicate its scope and impact.